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5 de-escalation tips when responding to agitated customers

Having the skills to de-escalate a confrontational or potentially violent situation has never been more important, especially in retail and other service settings. Reports of customer anger directed at front-line workers and supervisors in stores, restaurants, bars, hotels and other service industries regularly appear in the media.

"Often staff who are responsible for enforcing rules are ill-equipped to handle the verbal abuse and aggression that come their way," says Kristy Cork, WSPS Workplace Mental Health Consultant. "The skills and techniques needed to de-escalate situations are not inherent; they have to be learned.

"Saying and doing the right things at the right time can nip potentially violent situations in the bud and prevent them from escalating further. Conversely, the wrong approach can make things worse."

To help workplaces address this challenge, WSPS has developed a half-day online instructor-led workshop, Violence and Harassment Prevention: Situational Awareness and De-Escalation. The workshop helps participants recognize situations that may put workers and managers at risk, understand de-escalation techniques, and practice their new skills. "We want people dealing with agitated customers to respond with thought rather than react automatically: is this going to help or hurt the situation?"

Kristy shares five tips on how to better prepare your staff to deal with angry or agitated customers and achieve the best possible outcome.

1. Choose the right people for frontline positions. Appoint staff members who are self-aware, effective communicators, can help people stay calm, and are able to keep their cool, says Kristy. "We're not trying to win; we’re trying to come to an understanding." Encourage employees to let you know if they are not comfortable dealing with agitated customers.

2. Encourage staff to listen and empathize. "Strike up a conversation, speak slowly and calmly, and encourage people to keep talking as long as they are being respectful." This can help agitated customers regain their composure. "The more people talk, the more likely they will feel heard and validated," notes Kristy.

Following up with an empathetic response - one that reflects what the customer is feeling and why - also helps to defuse a situation by acknowledging the person's emotional state. It could be as simple as responding with "I understand that this is a huge source of frustration." Kristy notes that showing empathy doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with the person or swaying from the rules that may be causing distress.

3. Train staff to recognize early warning signs and apply situational awareness skills; for example, when customers begin to fidget, speak loudly, or appear dissatisfied. Ignoring these signs could lead to more agitation, rude, abusive or aggressive language, and even physical violence.

4. Provide an out so that if a situation continues to escalate, employees have ways to leave or get help. "If a customer starts name-calling, using abusive language, or threatening physical violence, the front-line employee should remove themselves from the situation and contact a supervisor or manager," says Kristy. Designate a "safe" room for staff, and include procedures for summoning help quickly in your workplace violence and harassment policy.

5. Train your front-line staff, supervisors and managers on de-escalation techniques so that employees are prepared and don't have to navigate these potentially dangerous situations on the spur of the moment.

How WSPS can help





WSPS consultants are also available to conduct violence risk assessments, create programs and policies, and more.

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.